In search of the pearl of the desert

Reaching the Ghadames oasis from Tripoli takes eight hours on a 640-kilometer-long asphalt road. The trip could be much shorter if Libyan motorists did not spend their time trying to bump into each other. Across Libya, however, this aggressiveness in driving is accompanied by extreme kindness and great gentleness in human relations: I have never seen drivers insult each other. The kindness of the Libyans and their discreet courtesy are so scattered that visitors are first beaten and come to believe that they are in the wrong country. Libyans do not crowd around foreigners, do not give alms and do not ask for bribes. They are not as annoying as the Moroccans, among whom the pursuit of tourists becomes a true nightmare. In Libya, it is not uncommon for people to greet in English, especially young people; most often people walk past you or past you without giving you the slightest glance and without even feeling like it. The shops do not shop in the Middle Eastern style. The merchants do not seem at all interested in selling you anything and they are not thinking of harassing you. Nor by the way to give you a discount. In Tripoli and elsewhere, European women, provided they are decently dressed, can circulate in full safety without anyone bothering them or commenting.
After a few days spent in this country, the Libyan reserve gets a different face. The road between Tripoli and Ghadames is littered with useless police checkpoints: In dirty guard boxes surrounded by rubbish and old metal plates, soldiers with long beards and sleepy dark edges keep watch. Here the soldiers do not want to chat a bit and do not even ask you for a cigarette before they let you pass. The soldiers who ask you to open your suitcase constantly avoid your gaze and do not answer your questions. It is only after a while that one realizes that their kindness also hides a mixture of shyness and inability – or difficulty – to form relationships with people who, like them, did not remain isolated and completely cut off from the outside world for thirty years. . This behavior is evident wherever you go, but especially in hotels where the contact between the tourist and the employee sometimes elicits giggles: one has the impression that behind the reception desk there is a whole crowd of people who do not know what to do; they always seem very surprised, even amazed, when asked about the most basic things like changing sheets in the room, which of course have been used by many previous guests.
Only old people who have known the Italian occupation can show greater liveliness. And it is even touching to see these men, who suffered the worst atrocities during the colonization, speak with obvious sympathy, or at least without anger, in an effective and rustic Italian, to an increasing number of tourists visiting Libya without knowing anything about colonial history. Visitors, nurtured by the myth of “italiani brava gente” [“ces braves Italiens”], see behind this sympathy a recognition of Italy’s uniqueness compared to other colonial powers. And yet the film The Lion of the Desert, which tells the story of Omar al-Mukhtar, one of the leaders of the Libyan resistance doomed to be hanged by General Graziani [c’est lui qui acheva la conquête de la Libye à la fin des années 30 et qui devint gouverneur général de la Libye en 1940], a major film starring Anthony Quinn and funded by Muammar Gaddafi, was officially banned in Italy when it was released worldwide. This film, without being a masterpiece, was undoubtedly beneath the historical truth and could certainly have gone much further in condemning the cruelty of the Italian generals. And it was not until 1998 that Italy expressed its regret over the suffering that colonization caused to the Libyan people.
It is said that the oasis Ghadames produces extraordinary dates. In all the countries of North Africa where I have been, from the oasis of Siouah [dans l’ouest de l’Egypte] to Kufras [dans le Sud libyen], I have been praised for the quality of these fruits, which, it is said, are more than a hundred varieties. Probably because they represent the only exportable commodities, although in the oases are also grown pomegranates, figs, yellow oranges with sweet flesh and even grapes.
Ghadames, a magnificent ancient city, is the exact reflection of what is described as the “pearl of the desert”: a labyrinth of whitewashed covered galleries, narrow and winding alleys framed by arches and pilasters capable of providing maximum protective shade. The walls and vaults are adorned with Fatima’s hands and other unmanageable signs; in the ceiling, openings resembling chimneys let in dazzling light, while only having to go down a few meters to find water, transported by a meticulous irrigation system. But this old city, protected byUNESCO, is a ghost town: all its inhabitants have moved to the outskirts, in modern houses built by Gaddafi, where they pay ridiculous rent or none at all. They return to the old town in the summer to cool off, and every day, whatever the season, to walk into the mosque or meet in the small market square, a pale reflection of the souk of past times. In the middle of XIVcentury, the great Arab-Maghreb traveler Ibn Batuta crossed the Sahara with a caravan coming from Mali, transporting 500 young black girls to be sold at the Ghadames market. This is the oldest known mention of the slave trade between the southern and northern part of the great desert.
To reach the Fezzan region of southern Libya, take a different and more adventurous route than the Ghadames – Ghat route: the trip intersects hamada [plateau, désert de pierres] el-Hamra and erg [désert de sable] of Awbari, one of the most spectacular in the Sahara. There is not a single Scheherazade chain hotel on the horizon. So you need to sleep in a tent and rely on an experienced Targui guide, great drivers and exceptional Toyota 4x4s. As I cross this rocky desert, I have fun looking among the rocks for the models who inspired some of the great masters of contemporary art.
In some places the hamada seems to stretch as far as the eye can see, and this flat and endless landscape is sometimes interrupted only by a natural crack: a wadi, the dry and fossil bed of an ancient river, once filled with water, as these bogs was partially covered by vegetation. Every time I stand in front of a wadi, I can not help but think of this English traveler who was asked about his impressions of the desert and who replied, “One cursed wadi after another.”
On the second day of our crossing, the large peaceful dunes of the Erg of Awbari meet us and follow each other like waves. The color of the sand is constantly changing, from pale ocher to orange. On cloudy days it tends to turn pearly gray and then regains its liveliness as the glow of twilight distorts all things with its light blend of ivory, carmine and violet. The phenomenon of “singing sand”, which many explorers have talked about, is also dependent on the sun and the wind. Under certain conditions, the dunes would emit a sound that could be heard for miles around, and they have again been compared to the song of sirens, an organ, a drum, or a giant harp. With a nod of the hand, the Targui guide shows us the way without ever making a mistake, and this sign of quasi-apostolic blessing pushes the car up into the velvety soft air. The crossing of the Awbari desert ends in the village of the same name, where we find the asphalt road, which on one side goes northeast towards Sebha, the administrative capital of Fezzan, [de l’autre, vers le sud-ouest en direction de Ghat] and [à 50 kilomètres du village] southeast towards Mourzouk. It is in Awbari that our guide leaves us and joins his “suburban house”. With the unexpected arrival of tourism – last year the region was visited by 12,000 people, a majority of Italians, French and Germans – many Tuareg have become guides, drivers or group leaders. Within the Libyan borders there are about 20,000; they do not all wear the indigo scarf, but they continue during their stay in the desert to celebrate the tea ritual while squatting in front of the fire. Their Sahara tea is a concentrate of thein and sugar, an ideal drink in the days of the desert warriors, but which today prevents those who are not used to it from sleeping.
A few days earlier I had bought a medal at the Tripoli market with long inscriptions in Arabic on one side and Gaddafi’s profile and on the other the famous fort Sebha. They explained to me that the inscriptions hinted that Gaddafi had studied at Sebha and that it was here that the idea of ​​the revolution must have sprouted in a climate of student demonstrations. The small fort still houses a military garrison, and I was banned from photographing the building. All small Libyan towns are very poorly maintained and Mourzouk is no exception to the rule. Barely built, the roads are already worn, the pavement slabs torn up, the carcasses of cars left on vacant lots where the wind has brought waste from all over the region. But the Libyans are not poor: here there are no huts, sheds or slums, as in all the other countries of the Middle East or the Maghreb. People are not starving and the regime has invested heavily in construction. You see Moorish arches and ogives everywhere: a veritable obsession with Islamic forms, magnificent in traditional Muslim architecture, but catastrophic when rendered in modern materials for third-class hotels.
Mountains of rubbish rub against new buildings, partly painted green – the color of Islam and the Libyan revolution – with their inevitable iron doors. In houses built recently, plumbing has not worked for several months, the walls crumble and ooze moisture. Even in the most remote deserts, there are pieces of scrap iron and rusty metal plates, heaps of tin cans around the wells. It would never occur to anyone to clean these places.
There is virtually nothing to see in Mourzouk, except for the beautiful little Turkish fort, which is slowly being restored but which no longer has any military value today. This fort was the starting point and arrival of the main caravans crossing the Sahara to reach Tripoli, the port of the Mediterranean, which controlled most of the traffic. Many tracks had been created to penetrate black Africa. Among the three most important and central, the first passed through the oases of Mourzouk and Bilma [aujourd’hui au Niger] and led to Lake Chad and the plains of Borno [aujourd’hui dans l’Etat nigérian du Borno] ; the other went from Ghadames to Agadez [aujourd’hui au Niger] past Ghat: it was the royal road and the busiest to go to Timbuktu [aujourd’hui au Mali] ; finally started the third from Ghadames, crossed In-Salah [Sud algérien] and the gorges of the Hoggar massif, to reach Timbuktu as well. The Sahara has always been a very healthy region. The only diseases that spread there were ophthalmia, arthritis and syphilis, and in Mourzouk malaria. The Tuaregs, known for their longevity, often reached and exceeded 80 years at a time when people on average died at the age of 50 years. The Arabs used to say, “A man can live his whole life in the desert unless he is killed by the Tuaregs.”

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